The Sunday supplement: the wizard of Oz

1w ago

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Sun-kissed and unshaven, the affably dishevelled Greg O’Keefe leans gently against the driver’s door of a green 356 Coupe. He takes a long drag on his cigarette, momentarily lost in thought. “I must have got my hands on more than 50 Porsche 356,” he says finally, exhaling slowly into the clear blue Melbourne sky.

Retired Australian Greg O’Keefe has spent most of his life tracking down and collecting Porsches. A member of the Porsche Club of Victoria and internationally respected expert on the 356, he has genuinely lost count of how many 356 Coupes, Cabriolets and Speedsters he has owned over the years. Partly down to the fact that he started so very, very young.

The Porsche bug bit when Greg was still in high school. He was, he confides, initially inspired by his teacher, who drove a 356C Coupé, but not in the way you might think. “I fell in love with the perfectly shaped body,” he says. “But my teacher said I would never own a Porsche.” By his own admission, Greg’s school work left a lot to be desired and his teacher didn’t hold out much hope.

But spurred on by this unkindly lack of faith, Greg set out to prove his teacher wrong. Granted, he still did not end up top of the class, but what he lacked in grades he would make up for with entrepreneurial spirit. To earn the money needed to buy his first 356, Greg began buying and selling old Porsche parts. So far from Europe, in the early Seventies, these old bits and bobs were extremely hard to come by and often commanded an impressive premium. By 1971, at the age of just 17, he had flipped enough spares to afford a 1956 356A Coupé for the then not inconsiderable sum of 400 Australian dollars (about €250). The dream had been realised, but as it turns out, his passion for collecting had only just begun.

Greg’s official job at the time was as a bridge builder, badly paid and back-breaking – much as his teacher had foreseen. But the air-cooled side line was going from strength to strength Greg fastidiously restored his own neglected coupé and sold it soon after for a tidy profit. His next car would be a 356 convertible, and he drove that for staggering 160,000 kilometres. All the while, Greg was buying and selling cars, swapping them in and out almost every month.

It was during those early days, while searching out new cars to restore and sell on, that he stumbled upon a very early split-screen coupé for the first time, a car that would be his elusive muse him for decades. This was, in fact, an incredibly important specimen; the third right-hand drive Porsche ever made, and the third Porsche of any type to travel from Germany to Australia – back in February 1952. “I had to have it,” Greg says with a steely smile. He nagged the owner for 24 years before finally getting the chance to purchase it. “It was so good that I simply restored the engine to its original condition and painted it in the original colour: Radium Green, code 510.”

Chassis number 11186 has been standing in a nondescript garage in Melbourne ever since – at least when Greg is not on the road in it. It now has 120,000 kilometres on the clock, and that doesn’t dampen its owner’s enthusiasm one bit. “The car has been driven for less than 20 years of its life,” Greg says. “It has only just been run in!”

Such a precious and historic car would be more than an enough to occupy the time and energy of most ordinary motoring mortals. But there there’s Greg. His coupé’s equally auspicious stablemate in that inconspicuous Melbourne garage is actually the very first right-hand drive 356 ever produced, a silver-grey convertible with blue leather interior. Chassis number 10110 was driven to Genoa on customs plates in 1951 and shipped to Norman Hamilton, Australia’s first Porsche dealer, in Melbourne that same year.

So Greg is now the proud owner of two of the first three Porsche sports cars to have made it to his native Australia. With passion and patience and very little else, Greg O’Keefe brought his teenage dream to life. He taps lightly on the Coupé’s roof and takes another pull on his cigarette. “We have lived the dream together!”

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